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Once More to the Rodeo: A Memoir

Calvin Hennick. Pushcart (Norton, dist.), $16.95 trade paper (220p) ISBN 978-1-888889-97-0

Freelance journalist Hennick delivers a moving debut memoir detailing a 10-day road trip he took with his five-year-old son Nile from their home outside Boston to the annual rodeo in Hennick’s “tiny hometown” of Maxwell, Iowa. He endearingly captures the father-son experiences they shared along the way, such as a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., where Nile saw his first baseball game; eating Chinese takeout in a Motel 6 (“Why did they put gooey carrots in here, too?” his son asks); and playing with Hennick’s old friend’s kids at the rodeo. Hennick’s thoughts are influenced by recollections of his relationship with his father (“a cancer and a toxin”), as well concerns about the life his biracial son will have in America (Hennick is white; his wife is black). Throughout, Hennick ruminates on the nature of fatherhood and how to teach his son “some sort of Cosmic Answers about Manhood” and “to contemplate what it means to be a man, and what it means to raise one.” By trip’s end, he realizes that his biggest fear had been “turning into my dad,” and he is satisfied in his efforts to make Nile’s trip “the most fun anyone’s ever had.” Hennick’s touching memoir captures both the fear and fun in raising a son. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 11/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Roaring Back: The Fall and Rise of Tiger Woods

Curt Sampson. Diversion, $26.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-63576-682-0

In this stirring assessment of Tiger Woods, Sampson (The Masters) takes readers through the golfer’s life. Structured by significant moments in Woods’s career—the legendary 1997 Masters tournament; the 2009 PGA Championship loss to Y.E. Yang and Woods’s car accident months later; his stunning 2019 Masters victory—the biography incisively captures the famously inscrutable Woods. Throughout, Sampson weaves snippets of his interviews with Woods along with examples of how the golfer rebuilt his career, such as by hiring golf instructor Sean Foley (“a kettle of fish of a different color... he spoke biomechanics, not Hogan catch-phrases” and listened to rap music), and prepared himself before practice—Woods sometimes waking “at a quarter to four” to prepare for early tee times, an especially arduous task for his aching body. Sampson also provides insights into the early years of Woods’s career, discussing his reluctance to accept the role of “Ambassador of his Race” while also acknowledging father Earl Woods’s determination that his son not face the “racial injustice” he had in his youth. Perhaps most striking, Sampson writes with eloquence about Woods’s recent triumph at the Masters, the culmination of his years of recovery, and how the 2019 victory at age 43 “tapped into our intense and undying interest in tales of redemption.” This is a must-read for Woods’s fans and casual golfers alike. (Oct.)

Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly noted Tiger Woods's age when won the 2019 Masters.

Reviewed on 11/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Barefoot to the Chin: The Fantastic Life of Sally Rand

Jim Lowe. Sentry Press, $39.95 (820p) ISBN 978-1-889574-45-5

Lowe delivers an exhaustive and entertaining debut biography of actress and burlesque dancer Sally Rand, whose risque fan dance at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair made her a national sensation. Drawing on Rand’s personal letters and scrapbooks as well as on archival research (including nearly 100 photos, many of which are included), Lowe details the dancer’s rise from her youth in the “rolling Ozark country” of Missouri to her discovery in 1924 by Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille, who called her “the most beautiful girl in America.” He describes her years as a vaudeville dancer and the creation of the fan dance, which led to her arrest and conviction in Chicago for nudity (she’d actually cover herself with thick white body makeup or a sheer body stocking while performing), and continues through her subsequent years of touring as a dancer—including stints on Broadway and in Las Vegas—which she did until her death in 1979 at age 75. Lowe excellently captures how Rand’s success was due to her “irrepressible personality” and her business savvy as her own manager. This enlightening book just might rescue from obscurity an entertainer whose career spanned meetings with presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton. (Self-published.)

Reviewed on 11/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Everything I Know About Love: A Memoir

Dolly Alderton. Harper, $22.99 (368p) ISBN 978-0-06-296878-4

British journalist and former Sunday Times dating columnist Alderton (Man Repeller) chronicles her love life in this wryly humorous essay collection. She writes about flirting as an awkward teenager via instant messages (“It was a complex Edwardian dance of courtship and I was a giddy and willing participant”), college parties (“I scan the room for boys with working limbs and a detectable pulse”), being single in a world that seems comprised solely of couples, and escaping a Tinder-facilitated threesome. In other essays she creates lists—things she’s scared of (plane food, STDs), the most annoying things people say (“how do you find the time to do all those tweets?”), safe topics for dinner conversations (“celebrity deaths”)—and deals with her own weight issues. Alderton writes with self-deprecating humor throughout, though her most moving essay focuses on the funeral of her best friend’s sister, who died of leukemia. A hit in the U.K., this clever collection will likely speak to American audiences as well. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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White Feathers: The Nesting Lives of Tree Swallows

Bernd Heinrich. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27 (256p) ISBN 978-1-328-60441-5

PEN New England Award–winner and naturalist Heinrich (Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death) again translates his painstaking fieldwork into a fascinating narrative. Heinrich became interested in white swallows, which combine “graceful flight, beauty of feathers, pleasing songs, and accessibility,” after he discovered the nest-box he’d built near his Vermont home lined with long, white feathers by the pair of swallows nesting there. Wondering about the reasons for this behavior, and whether it was unique to that particular pair, Heinrich began watching swallow families in the area as their eggs were laid, incubated, and hatched. He meticulously recounts how he conducted an experiment in which he created new boxes for the birds to nest in very close to each other, to test their ability to coexist. After eight years of both “fascination and frustration,” he finally arrived at an answer about how the birds use feathers: as a way to communicate with each other and avoid wasteful and unnecessary conflict over habitats. However, Heinrich avoids striking too triumphal a note, cautioning that further research is still needed. Natural history lovers will relish this intimate look at a small but vital part of nature. Agent: Sandra Dijkstra, Sandra Dijkstra Literary. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Running Against the Devil: A Plot to Save America from Trump—and Democrats from Themselves

Rick Wilson. Crown Forum, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-0-593-13758-1

Republican strategist Wilson (Everything Trump Touches Dies) delivers a histrionic yet trenchant guide to presidential politics with the ostensible purpose of helping Democrats win the White House in 2020. Declaring the Democratic Party to be “terrible at the work of electoral politics,” Wilson first presents the liberal nightmare of a Trump reelection (“your pride in being the most progressive candidate and campaign since FDR turns to ashes in your mouth”) before sketching the prospective lasting impacts of Trump’s second term, including the erosion of social norms (“a generation will learn its behavior from the worst role model since Saddam Hussein”) and the rise of a political dynasty (“the Imperial Trumps”). To prevent such a scenario, he suggests that Democrats make the 2020 election a referendum on Trump rather than a debate over policy issues such as health care, gun control, or the environment. Wilson intersperses his strategic advice with satirical asides (potential tweets from Trump’s second term, fact-checks from future debates) that produce more eye rolls than genuine guffaws, and while his keen political insights can be difficult to glean through his disdain for his imagined liberal reader, they’re often on-target. Democrats with a high tolerance for invective would do well to consider the book’s fundamental warning that winning in 2020 will require “put[ting] electoral realities ahead of progressive fantasies.” (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Politics Is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action, and Make Real Change

Eitan Hersh. Scribner, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-1-9821-1678-1

Tufts University political science professor Hersh argues in this earnest yet somewhat mislabeled debut that “political hobbyism,” the practice of obsessively consuming political news without engaging in real-world activism, is not only a waste of time, but is actively harming American democracy. In 2018, Hersh surveyed “a random sample of 1,000 Americans” about their political engagement. The vast majority of respondents admitted that they didn’t volunteer for a political organization, with most declaring that they didn’t have the time to do so. Yet more than half also acknowledged spending an hour or more every day reading about politics or watching political news programs. Hersh argues that hobbyism inflames public opinion on both sides of the political spectrum, making elected officials less likely to compromise. He provides case studies of activists who put serious effort into advocating for their preferred causes, and, in the book’s final 20 pages, offers specific guidance on how readers can stop being hobbyists and start participating in the political process by performing community service or becoming an elected delegate. Though it’s billed as a how-to, the book leans more toward cultural study. While readers may wish that Hersh had included more practical advice, this richly detailed account effectively highlights an issue affecting contemporary political discourse. Agent: Jill Kneerim, Kneerim & Williams Literary Agency. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Tap Code: The Epic Survival Tale of a Vietnam POW and the Secret Code That Changed Everything

Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris and Sara W. Berry. Zondervan, $26.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-310-35911-1

Harris, a retired Air Force pilot, debuts with a forthright account of his eight years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and the WWII-era code he taught his fellow detainees so they could communicate with each other. Shot down in April 1965, Harris was just the sixth American captured in North Vietnam. He was taken to the infamous prison known as the Hanoi Hilton, where he drew on his Catholic faith and his brief dialogues with fellow POWs to keep up his morale. Meanwhile, his wife, Louise, struggled to raise their three children on her own and battled with the Defense Department to continue receiving her husband’s monthly paycheck. (Her experiences are recounted in first-person chapters interspersed throughout the book.) Two months after his capture, Harris remembered an obscure communication code he’d learned in survival school and taught it to three other Americans. Based on a five-by-five grid of the alphabet in which each letter could be communicated by two sets of taps, the code was shared with new arrivals and became a vital means of lifting prisoners’ spirits and sharing resistance strategies. Crediting his knowledge of the code and his ability to endure torture and inhumane living conditions to an unshakable belief in “God and country,” Harris delivers an accessible, faith-infused memoir of survival that will appeal to Christian readers and military history buffs. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Exploding Stars and Invisible Planets: The Science of What’s Out There

Fred Watson. Columbia Univ., $28 (256p) ISBN 978-0-231-19540-9

Astronomer Watson (Stargazer: The Life and Times of the Telescope) explores a bounty of subjects from his field in this intriguing and accessible view of cutting-edge astrophysics. Watson begins close to home, looking at the features that make Earth unique, the (to him) inevitable continued expansion of human activity into space, and the question of how to minimize environmental contamination when exploring other worlds. He then takes up the mysteries that only grow more fascinating as scientists peer into them: the secrets of black holes and dark matter, the Big Bang, and how the violent death of one star can initiate long-term change across the universe. Watson’s writing style is clean and concise, and the illuminating explanations of the book’s various topics—which also run to meteors and meteorites, the weather on other planets and the search for extraterrestrial life—are accessible to casual readers. Among other vivid details, he recounts how Renaissance astronomer Johannes Kepler, an early theorist about intelligent extraterrestrials, deduced that the Moon’s populace had built “circular embankments to protect themselves from the Sun’s radiation,” and describes a gold-tinted, perfectly hexagonal hurricane at the North Pole of Saturn. Watson explains and entertains to equally strong effect. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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We Know It When We See It: What the Neurobiology of Vision Tells Us About How We Think

Richard Masland. Basic, $20 (288p) ISBN 978-1-5416-1850-3

Masland, a Harvard Medical School neuroscience professor, misses the mark in this attempt to explain vision’s neurobiological basis to a general audience. He does a very good job of explaining how perception broadly, including vision, works, and even those without any grounding in the fundamentals of biology will be able to gain an appreciation of how the nervous system interacts with the outside world and conveys information to the brain. What works less well is the complexity that intrudes as Masland moves beyond the basics (“If the axons of the retinal ganglion cells synapse upon the neurons of the lateral geniculate nucleus...”), making it unlikely that his target audience will stay with him. His forays into comparing the ways brains process visual stimuli with the ways in which artificial intelligence attempts to accomplish the same task are intriguing but abbreviated, as is his almost fleeting discussion of the nature of consciousness, in which he concludes, “In the end I fear that consciousness is unknowable.” Those looking for a scientific explanation of vision will find a useful primer, but those searching for answers to larger questions, such as the one posed by Masland’s subtitle, are likely to be disappointed. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/22/2019 | Details & Permalink

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